Back to the Basics of Reformed Worship: Reformed Chameleons?

Isn’t it true that in many cases the reading and preaching of Scripture, the careful administration of the sacraments and substantial seasons of prayer have been crowded out by lengthy announcements, personal testimonies, and extended segments of music and praise?

I love historic Reformed worship.

It is assiduously biblical in form and substance, intentionally Trinitarian in nature and scope, and, at its best, is warm, joyful, and reverent.

There is, however, a disconcerting and, might I add, wrongheaded trend among many self-identified Reformed and confessional Christians in our day. My guess is that many who are reading this have observed it. It is the bold trajectory away from the simple, ///God-centered, ordinary-means-of-grace-driven approach to public worship (which has characterized the Reformed Church for centuries) to one that is more broadly evangelical and, in some cases, unreservedly pragmatic.

More troubling still is the growing number of ordained ministers within theologically conservative, Reformed and confessional denominations who have avowed to promote and defend Reformed doctrine and yet do not seem to connect the dots between the essential tenets of Reformed dogma and the nature of public worship on the Lord’s Day. Indeed, it is almost as if the one has no real bearing upon the other.[1]

Consequently, public worship amongst the Reformed too often mirrors that of evangelicals who may have never even heard of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) or the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), and whose theological commitments are fundamentally antithetical to both.

It is a sad and growing tendency among Reformed churches, including many of our larger congregations, to exchange the theologically rich, historic worship of the Reformed tradition for the chameleon-like modus operandi of contemporary evangelical worship.

Isn’t it true that in many cases the reading and preaching of Scripture, the careful administration of the sacraments and substantial seasons of prayer have been crowded out by lengthy announcements, personal testimonies, and extended segments of music and praise?[2]

This tendency exposes the Reformed camp’s deteriorating confidence in the means that God Himself ordained for the salvation of His elect and the exaltation of His name among the nations; namely, His Word, the sacraments, and prayer.[3] I am certain that a majority of our sixteenth-to-twentieth-century Reformed forebears would take umbrage at what too often constitutes public worship in our churches. In some cases, public worship has evolved into something that would be fairly unrecognizable to those upon whose shoulders we profess to stand.

Recovering a Lost Principle

The Westminster Confession of Faith’s chapter on worship states that “the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.”[4]

In other words, we are not free to worship God as we please. God has clearly set forth in His Word how He wants to be worshipped. This regulative principle “helps to assure that God – not man – is the supreme authority for how corporate worship is to be conducted, by assuring that the Bible, God’s own special revelation (and not our own opinions, tastes, likes, and theories), is the prime factor in our conduct of and approach to corporate worship.”[5] The Bible, not sincere motives or cultural sensibilities, is the litmus test for what distinguishes true worship from that which is false.

In Reformed thinking, Lord’s Day worship has generally been understood to be the most important activity of the Christian Church. John Calvin, in his The Necessity of Reforming the Church, written in 1544 to Emperor Charles V, the elector princes, and all those who gathered at the Imperial Diet at Spires in order to persuade them of the chief tenets of the Protestant cause, states:

If it be inquired, then, by what things chiefly the Christian religion has a standing existence amongst us, and maintains its truth, it will be found that the following two not only occupy the principle place, but comprehend under them all of the other parts, and consequently, the whole substance of Christianity: that is, a knowledge, first, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped; and secondly, of the source from which salvation is to be obtained.[6]

We must recognize that for Calvin, the true Christian Faith will have a “standing existence amongst us” and “maintain its truth” only if God is worshipped properly, that is, according to His Word. Calvin enlarges on this by stating that

… there is a two-fold reason why the Lord, in condemning and prohibiting all fictitious worship, requires us to give obedience only to his own voice. First, it tends greatly to establish his authority that we do not follow our own pleasure, but depend entirely on his sovereignty; and, secondly, such is our folly, that when we are left at liberty, all we are able to do is to go astray. And then when once we have turned aside from the right path, there is no end to our wanderings, until we get buried under a multitude of superstitions. Justly, therefore, does the Lord, in order to assert his full right of dominion, strictly enjoin what he wishes us to do, and at once reject all human devices which are at variance with his command. Justly, too, does he, in express terms, define our limits, that we may not, by fabricating perverse modes of worship, provoke his anger against us.[7]

To summarize, since the days of Calvin, one of the defining characteristics of Reformed worship is that it is regulated by God’s Word. If Reformed and confessional churches would embrace afresh this fundamental principle, I believe there would be much less confusion, both theologically and philosophically, in our sessions and congregations.
The “worship wars” within the Reformed Camp appear to be largely due to congregants being unsatisfied with what the Reformed tradition has, for centuries, deemed important. Even worse, we have grown suspect over what God Himself has prescribed for worship. Perhaps the “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” versus “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” rift would be less contentious if the zealous advocates of each would create liturgies consisting of what the Reformed and confessional have always valued as central to public worship.

The question remains, however: What has God sanctioned for corporate worship?[8] To be sure, throughout the centuries Reformed and confessional churches have expressed minor differences in the construction of their liturgies.[9] Even so, almost all have agreed that there are essential elements to faithful worship, elements that cannot be negotiated or minimized. Indeed, a recovery of the primary elements of Word, sacraments, and prayer, rightly understood and practiced, would solve many of the current problems that our churches are facing pertaining to worship.

A Sample Liturgy

Below is a sample liturgy – with brief, interspersing comment – that conforms to Scripture and demonstrates a dependence upon what God Himself has commanded for worship and promised to bless in the lives of His elect. Although the form of a carefully constructed liturgy may not look the same in every Reformed congregation, the substance should be very similar if our theological commitments are in agreement.

The Call to Worship

One way to begin the public worship of God is with a call to worship.[10] This gives the service a definite commencement, moving from a common use of time to that which is sacred. This call should come in the form of a warm and robust reading of a fitting text from God’s Word (e.g. Psalm 66:1-5; 95:1-6; 84:1-12; 100:1-5; John 4:23-24; Hebrews 12:28, 29). The passage should be read by the leading minister or as a responsive reading between the minister and the congregation. Through the call to worship, God Himself invites and exhorts His gathered people to worship. From beginning to end this worship is to be Trinitarian; that is, directed to God the Father, through the mediation of the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Gloria Patri or Doxology

In brief, Trinitarian formulas put to music have been sung since the early centuries of the Church. To sing them is a glorious expression of our faith in the Triune God and of our unity with the Church throughout the ages.

The Prayer of Invocation

The prayer of invocation is a prayer which humbly, yet confidently (Hebrews 4:16) “invokes” the presence of God in worship. It is the congregation’s faith-filled response to the divine call to worship. When done well, this prayer 1) exalts the nature, character and works of God, 2) communicates the church’s love for and utter dependence upon the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and 3) humbly requests God’s saving presence.[11] Finally, the prayer of invocation, at its best, is saturated with Scripture.

The Hymn, Psalm, or Song of Adoration

God commands His people to sing. “Shout for joy to God, all the earth; sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise!” (Psalm 66:1, 2; Col. 3:16) Sadly, what the church sings in public worship has become the single most divisive issue in the church today. Though I have no intention of entering the debate here, I think it is important for us to consider at least three things in regard to singing and music in the church. Firstly, congregational singing in public worship is first and foremost for the glory of God. It is not an outreach tool or a means to make [read: manipulate] the congregation to “feel” a certain way. Therefore, whether our music and singing is traditional, contemporary or some Starbucks blend of both, Reformed and confessional churches should seek to employ and compose music that is doctrinally rich and musically excellent. Repetitious praise songs strummed on two chords of the guitar do not reach the mark; nor does a painfully slow, poorly written, and musically tortuous hymn.

Secondly, we must understand – and teach our congregations – that “worship” is not just music and singing. You may have heard it said, “Our time of worship in church was great, and the sermon and prayers were good too.” This common misunderstanding that singing in corporate worship is when true “worship” occurs, has, in my estimation, been one of the corrupting roots of the so-called worship wars. It has led many Reformed churches to flatten their liturgies with inordinate amounts of music. In traditional churches there may be an overemphasis on choirs, solos, organ instrumentals, and long seasons of hymn singing that make the liturgy more of a sacred musical than a public worship service. On the other hand, for contemporary churches, the multi-member praise band often requires half of the service to get through their large volume of overheads. Here is the point: Singing is just one element of the worship service. If Reformed and confessional churches would embrace this principle, there would be considerably less infighting over music and singing. Singing and making music to the Lord is a vital aspect of Reformed worship, but it should not become more important than the reading and preaching of the Word, the sacraments, and prayer. Wouldn’t it be great if the worship wars were a serious dialogue over the removal of the pastoral prayer, the disappearance of the expository sermon, or the profound lack of instruction and exhortation at the Lord’s Table? Perhaps more teaching on the importance of all the elements of worship would foster more peace and balance in our congregations.

Thirdly, congregations should not eliminate Psalm and hymn singing from their liturgies. Psalm singing is commanded in Scripture (Psalm 47:6-7; 105:1-3; Col. 3:16). And solid, Word-centered hymnody, written over the centuries, is an ongoing expression of our connection to believers from the past. Paul S. Jones states, “Current patterns of worship in evangelicalism may suggest otherwise, but hymnody and psalmody are still integral to the Christian Faith. Herein lies the rich repository of centuries of Christian worship – a heritage that should be embraced and built upon, not shunned or artificially made palatable.”[12] Therefore, whether sung with tunes historic or modern, Psalms and hymns should remain an essential and substantial part of our singing in worship.

The Public Reading of Scripture

The Apostle Paul exhorted his disciple Timothy (and all ministers thereafter) to “give attention to the public reading of Scripture.” (I Timothy 4:13) The reading of Scripture is a non-negotiable element of public worship. The Westminster Divines emphasized this essential part of worship in the 1645 Directory for Public Worship, the “first completed production of the Assembly”[13] It states:

The reading of the word in the congregation, being part of the public worship of God (wherein we acknowledge our dependence upon him and our subjection to him), and one mean sanctified by him for the edifying of his people, is to be performed by pastors and teachers.

All the canonical books of the Old and New Testament … shall be publicly read in the vulgar tongue, out of the best allowed translation, distinctly, that all may hear and understand.

How large a portion shall be read at once, is left to the wisdom of the minister; but it is convenient, that ordinarily one chapter of each Testament be read at every meeting; and sometimes more, where the chapters be short or the coherence of matter requires it.[14]

In reality, few Christians maintain consistent Bible reading in their homes. When books of the Bible are read successively in public worship, the entire congregation is exposed to large portions of God’s Word, thereby feeding the flock with the whole counsel of God. Reformed and confessional churches who have removed this element from their liturgy need to reinstate this biblical practice.

*The Ten Commandments could be read here

The Corporate Prayer of Confession

The prayer of confession, led by an elder, is a corporate admission of guilt, that is, of our lack of conformity unto, and transgression of, God’s law. The Bible states, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:9) Whether the corporate confession of sin is done as a part of the opening prayer or as a separate element of the service, an honest acknowledgement of (and turning from) our sin is another necessary and non-negotiable aspect of biblical worship.

The Assurance of Pardon

The assurance of pardon, which immediately follows the confession of sin, is a joyful declaration of God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness in Christ. This divine promise, read from the Bible by the minister, is received by the congregation through the exercising of faith in the crucified and risen Savior. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1)

The Hymn, Psalm, or Song of Gratitude & Trust

The hymn, Psalm, or song chosen at this juncture should specifically express sincere gratitude for the person and finished work of Christ.

The Confession of Faith

Corporate creedal recitation is another important element of public worship. A confession or creed is a concise statement of Christian belief (credo = I believe). The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed are historic creeds that have been confessed publicly by Christians for over 1500 years. The creed functions not only as a bold public confession of the Church’s fundamental beliefs but also as a didactic tool that weekly reinforces the true nature of God and His gospel. Some view the public confession of creeds as an act of superfluous tradition. On the contrary, it is a biblically derived, corporate, and public statement of the Christian faith that Christians have been confessing for centuries.

The Pastoral Prayer

In many Reformed and confessional churches the lengthy and biblically substantive pastoral prayer has been greatly diminished. Whereas historically this prayer was, on average, between ten to twenty minutes, it is now typically two to four minutes at most. Our growing prayerlessness in Reformed churches is a reflection of our perceived self-sufficiency.

Consequently, pastoral prayer has turned into a short, predictable prayer for “really” sick people, the nation, the church, and the offering. The pastoral prayer, however, should be a substantive, biblically drenched prayer that 1) exalts the character of God and His works of creation and redemption, 2) gives thanks for all of God’s physical and spiritual blessings, and 3) intercedes for the government, the lost, and the physical and spiritual needs of God’s flock. This prayer will be approximately seven to ten minutes in length, in some cases longer. If prayer is one of the greatest expressions of our complete and utter dependence upon God, it should be a significant part of our corporate worship.

*The pastoral prayer could end with the Lord’s Prayer

The Giving of God’s Tithe & Our Offerings

The Preaching of God’s Word

The preaching of God’s Word is the central act in the divine drama of biblical worship. It is no less than God communicating Christ to His covenant people. God’s people are spiritually nourished upon the divine Word. The proclamation of the Word of God is the primary instrument employed by the Holy Spirit to unite the elect to Christ, thereby causing in them both spiritual life (regeneration) and growth (sanctification). (I Peter 1: 3; 23 – 2:3; I Corinthians 1:21)

Historically, the Reformed and confessional tradition has maintained a high view of the power, sufficiency, and efficacy of the preached Word. Thus, the Lectio continua or systematic expository method of preaching has been the method of choice for many Reformed ministers, from the days of Calvin to the present (though this too has waned). With this method of preaching, the minister takes the congregation verse by verse through entire books of the Bible. This model reinforces the Church’s need for the whole counsel of God and not just the pastor’s (or congregation’s) favorite texts and topics.

The Hymn, Psalm or Song of Response

This hymn, Psalm, or song of response should reflect some of the same truths preached in the sermon. This allows the congregation to rejoice in the truth proclaimed from God’s life-transforming Word.

The Lord’s Supper Instruction & Exhortation

John Owen, on 2 November 1673 began one of his brief pre-Supper sermons with the words “You know I usually speak a few words to prepare us for this ordinance.”[15] This ought to be the practice of every minister who serves communion. Indeed, the congregation needs to be reminded of the nature and benefits of the Lord’s Supper every time it is administered. The minister must work hard to keep his instruction at the Lord’s Table fresh, especially if communion is served every Lord’s Day.

The Administration of the Lord’s Supper

According to the Reformed tradition, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is a primary means of grace. It is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, signifying the body and blood of Christ and sealing unto worthy partakers the promises and benefits of the gospel. Since, then, the Lord’s Supper is a primary means of gospel proclamation and spiritual nourishment to the elect, churches should not exhibit the kind of sacramental anemia that is often associated with the broad evangelical church. It is true that we do not get anything new or different at the Lord’s Supper than we do in the preaching of God’s Word. Nevertheless, in the Supper we get a better grasp of the same thing, namely, the person and redemptive work of Jesus Christ. Robert Bruce, preaching on the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper in the winter of 1589 at St. Giles Kirk in Edinburgh, Scotland, states:

Even if you get that same thing better which you get in the Word, yet you get that same thing better. What is this ‘better’? You get a better grip of the same thing in the Sacrament than you got by the hearing of the Word. That same thing which you possess by the hearing of the Word, you possess more fully … We get a better grip of Christ now, for by the Sacrament my faith is nourished, the bounds of my soul are enlarged, and so where I had but a little grip of Christ before, as it were, between my finger and my thumb, now I get Him in my whole hand, and indeed the more my faith grows, the better grip I get of Christ Jesus.[16]

The Lord Jesus Christ instituted baptism and the Lord’s Supper in order to provide His people with visible signs and seals of the gospel of grace. May we come eagerly and often to the covenant renewal meal that God ordained for the church’s spiritual strength, comfort, and ever-increasing joy in Christ.

The Hymn, Psalm or Song of Response

The Benediction

In a Scriptural call to worship God gets the first word in the service. With a biblical benediction He also gets the last. The benediction, in short, is God’s departing blessing upon His people. According to Hughes Old, however, it is “not simply a valediction [formal farewell], nor simply a prayer for grace appropriate to the end of the liturgy, but rather the pledge of that divine benevolence which is the source of our salvation.”[17]

The above liturgy is packed with the God exalting, soul-converting, and faith-nourishing Word of God. When carried out properly by the minister, that is, in a positive, warm, loving, reverent, joyful, humble and zealous fashion we can be ever confident that God will be glorified, the Church encouraged, and the lost evangelized.

Final Thoughts

We all learned in grade school that chameleons are slimy lizards that change color based on their surroundings. Self-avowed Reformed and confessional Christians who “change colors” on worship, because of their cultural or sub-cultural [read: evangelical] surroundings, are Reformed chameleons. Reformed chameleons are always changing. They are often reinventing worship, integrating new and innovative ways to keep the flock and reach out to the seeker; neither of which should be the driving purpose of sacred worship.

Though Reformed chameleons may not always look like slimy lizards, they are all pretty slippery when it comes to a philosophy of public worship. If any one thing characterizes them, it is an unwillingness to embrace what our Reformed heritage has always deeply cherished regarding public worship, namely, a high view of the regulative principle, an emphasis on the transcendence of God, and a keen interest in retaining the good things which have been passed down to us over the centuries. The means of grace are trans-cultural and trans-temporal. As far as relevance goes, the Word, sacraments, and prayer are as irrelevant in today’s society as they were in first century Asia Minor. And yet, they are the means by which God has promised to exalt His name, communicate His crucified and risen Son, and save the elect. What more could we ask for?

Therefore, we who are Reformed and confessional, let us renew our commitment to the principles which have guided us for centuries. Let us consider our theological commitments such as human depravity, the holiness and sovereignty of God, and the sufficiency and efficacy of the ordinary means of grace (Word, Sacraments and prayer); and how they relate to Lord’s Day worship. And, finally, let us not casually abandon a liturgy which clearly sets forth the majesty of God and the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ.
[This article originally appeared on Reformation21 – the webzine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals]

[1] See D.G. Hart and John R. Muether, With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002), pp. 13-17.
[2] In more extreme cases, Reformed and confessional churches are adding to their Lord’s Day liturgy elements such as drama, liturgical dance, and mid-service coffee breaks.
[3] Question #88 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, “What are the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?” Answer: “The outward and ordinary means, whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption, are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.”
[4] Westminster Confession of Faith, XXI; I.
[5] Ryken, Thomas, Duncan, eds. (Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship: Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), p. 24.
[6] John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church (Dallas: Protestant Heritage Press, 1995), p.15
[7] Ibid, p.17.
[8] See Ryken, Thomas, Duncan, eds. Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003); Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984); Terry Johnson, Reformed Worship: Worship That Is According to Scripture (Greenville, S.C.: Reformed Academic Press, 2000); Jeremiah Burroughs, Gospel Worship (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1990; first published in 1648); David Lachman and Frank J. Smith, eds. Worship in the Presence of God (Greenville, S.C.: Greenville Seminary Press, 1992); D.G. Hart and John R. Muether, With Reverence & Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship (Philipsburg, PA: P&R, 2002).
[9] See Charles W. Baird, The Presbyterian Liturgies: Historical Sketches (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006; first published in 1855) and Bard Thompson, Liturgies of the Western Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1961)
[10] A prayer of invocation or confession may also be employed to commence worship. This was typical in many liturgies during the 16th c. Protestant Reformation.
[11] A fantastic resource for ministers on public prayer is Hughes Oliphant Old’s Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Worship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995).
[12] Paul S. Jones, Singing and Making Music: Issues in Church Music Today (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2006), p. 69.
[13] Richard A. Muller and Rowland S. Ward, Scripture and Worship: Biblical Interpretation & the Directory for Worship (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2007), p.91. For an excellent discussion on the Directory for Public Worship see pp. 85-175.
[14] Ibid, p. 145-146
[15] John Owen on the Lord’s Supper (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2004), 160.
[16] Robert Bruce, Mystery of the Lord’s Supper: Sermons by Robert Bruce (Fearn, UK: Christian Focus & Rutherford House, 2005; first published in 1590), p.84.
[17] Hughes Oliphant Old, The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship (Black Mountain, N.C.: Worship Press, 2004), p. 334

Jon D. Payne is a Teaching Elder in the PCA and serves as pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Douglasville, Ga. He hold the MDiv and DMin degree from RTS. This article first appeared in the Back To The Basics section of the Grace Presbyterian Church website and is used with permission.


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